U.S. Release Date: October 5, 2007
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Tony Gilroy
Writer: Tony Gilroy
Producer: Jennifer Fox, Anthony Minghella (executive), Sydney Pollack, Steven Soderbergh (executive)
Composer: James Newton Howard
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: R (language including some sexual dialogue)

Tepid Affair Scores Style Points
by Scott Holleran

In his directorial debut, The Bourne Identity writer Tony Gilroy lifts Michael Clayton slightly higher than other recent big-budget thrillers—Breach, The Good Shepherd, Mr. Brooks—for a mildly interesting character drama.

Don't expect this ponderous material to amount to much. With a strong sense of music and mood amid multiple characters, Gilroy knows how to depict a story with style. Taking his time is not a problem. With an identity theme similar to the Bourne series, Michael Clayton might have been a suspenseful baffler about the title character's moral crisis.

That everything's pretty predictable might have also been alright. But cleverly playing with plot sequencing within a generic, anti-business conspiracy theory, Gilroy impedes bonding with lead character Clayton and raises the stakes too high. An attachment with Michael Clayton is never formed. The payoff to his development fizzles.

That's part of the movie's purpose, to keep the viewer guessing about what this grizzled, fortyish law firm fixer (played by and, basically, as George Clooney) will or won't do. That Clooney's Michael Clayton might end up doing what any third-grader with a decent upbringing would do without hesitation isn't enticing in dramatic terms. Not for two hours.

Beginning with a narrative by Tom Wilkinson's loopy lawyer, who rambles about having "breached the chrysalis," Michael Clayton piles on fragments of data bit by bit. Finally, a plot forms.

Clayton is merely one of many players. For his part, it's eventually revealed that the top New York law firm's favorite troubleshooter is addicted to gambling—recovery is a key underpinning—comes from a family of cops, has two brothers, one of whom is an alcoholic, and he needs to raise a huge wad of cash and fast. He has a kid named Henry, too.

Linking Clayton to the central conspiracy is Wilkinson's supposedly brilliant attorney (though that's not sufficiently demonstrated), who sticks the picture's theme to Clayton at the height of the hyperdrama in an alley, poking his pal with the challenge: "who are you?"

The question demands an answer and, like Clayton's money troubles, time is running out. That's because Wilkinson, who's gone bonkers in the midst of a class-action suit against an agricultural corporation, has discovered crucial evidence that implicates the firm's client—represented by Tilda Swinton's corporate cog—which threatens to derail a merger. Wilkinson may be nuttier than a fruitcake but he may be right.

Sydney Pollack (the director and producer who also acts) appears as the firm's dubious law partner. Swinton is not believable as a perfectionist counsel sweating her own dilemma. Clooney is fine as a passive Mister Fix-it man trying to get a hold on what's happening and decide whether he wants to mend his own sorry state of affairs.

Though the plot's as predictable as pumpkin pie, and factoring the logic gaps—such as leaving vital documents at the local copy center—there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than this zero sum game.

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